The Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship is an opportunity for beginning farmers to “earn while they learn.” It’s the first legally recognized, fully accredited apprenticeship for farming in the U.S. This GrassWorks initiative provides a “guided pathway” to independent farm ownership, or as an alternative, a management post on a grass-based dairy.
Aspiring and/or current beginning graziers (i.e. Apprentices) are linked to veteran “Master” graziers for on-farm training/employment, while Apprentices also go through formal classroom schooling. The aim is to transfer dairy farms, equip new dairy producers to establish operations of their own, or provide the industry with highly skilled dairy-farm managers.
Joe Tomandl III, a Medford dairy grazier featured this week on Agri-View’s front page, is program director for the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship, and administered through the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development (similar to development of Master plumbers, electricians or other skilled trades). A Journey Dairy Grazier is the credentialed equivalent of a technical school degree, says Tomandl.
DGA is comprised of 4,000 paid hours of on-farm training over two years (the equivalent of a full-time job). An Apprentice is getting paid by the Mentor Dairy Grazier, Tomandl explains. Most of those hours are on-farm experience under the guidance of an approved Master Dairy Grazier, who is aided in transferring knowledge and grazing prowess by following a job book for competencies provided by DGA. The Master Dairy Grazier pays the Apprentice on a pay scale established by the program.
The remaining 288 hours are paid related instruction, which include courses through the Wisconsin Technical College System and University of Wisconsin as well as participation in pasture walks, farming conferences and peer-to-peer discussion groups.
Tomandl says it’s required that Apprentices attend the UW School for Beginning Dairy and Livestock Farmers’s grazing seminar, broadcast remotely throughout the state during the winter months. They also take an on-line soils class offered by Northeast Wisconsin Technical College in Green Bay and three seminar-style classes from Northcentral Technical College at Wausau on topics like dairy health and milk quality. Apprentices are even reimbursed for time spent in class.
Participants become Dairy Grazing Apprentices, Journey Dairy Graziers, and finally Master Dairy Graziers. DGA also provides Apprentices and Masters financial planning services through Cadwallader Consulting, LLC, and is developing models of equity building, farm start-up, and farm transfer.
DGA, which will be two years old in July, has “graduated” Journey Dairy Graziers. Tomandl says three now have their own farms, and one is managing a farm. Nine Apprentices are placed on farms at present (seven in Wisconsin and two in Minnesota).
Tomandl says there’s a sizeable candidate list – everyone from high school grads to mid-lifers looking for a second career. Applicants, who must be 18, fill out a profile on the DGA website (www.dairygrazingapprenticeship.org) which only approved Master Dairy Graziers can access. Potential Master Dairy Graziers (i.e. mentor/employers) also fill out applications on this website, to be approved by an oversight committee. Tomandl says a Master must have five years experience minimum in managed grazing and be “serious about mentoring.” They undergo an interview and farm visit (by Tomandl).
DGA then “back away” and lets the Master Dairy Graziers (of which there are 23 at this time) peruse the candidates to find someone they feel would be suitable to mentor/employ on their farm.
DGA is funded by a federal grant from the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture within USDA. Tomandl notes that Wisconsin’s program may serve as a “national template,” for expansion nationwide.
Tomandl says there’s a need for Master Dairy Graziers. Why become one? In part, to shape the future of Wisconsin’s dairy industry by sharing and transferring knowledge to a next-generation grazier. Master Dairy Graziers also gain a motivated Apprentice who will be an asset to their operation during the learning process. The established farmer also receives assistance in exploring new models of farm investment and expansion, equity building and possible farm transfer. Not only is this a way to pass a grass-based dairy farm to a beginning farmer but it might also be a way for an existing operator to expand, by perhaps investing in a second farm or satellite operation, which a graduated Journey grazier manages and/or eventually buys into.
Tomandl sees DGA eventually going a step farther with investment by agribusiness and others with an interest in seeing stable-to-increasing dairy farm numbers in Wisconsin. Perhaps, he muses, “Joe Farmer” is ready to sell his farm, but doesn’t want to do a land contract with a beginning grazier – specifically, a Journey Dairy Grazier. Still, he’d really like his farm to remain as a viable, independent operation n the future. Tomandl is hopeful that eventually DGA could help secure capital that could help establish that Journey Dairy Grazier on Joe Farmer’s farm, instead of Joe Farmer selling off his herd and the land swallowed up by cash-cropping or converted to some other use.
Tomandl stresses that DGA is looking for industry support and will be rolling out an industry-sponsorship campaign in the near future.
Just because grazing is DGA’s chosen method of establishing new dairy farmers in the business doesn’t mean the model can’t work for that producer who, let’s say, has a 55-cow conventional dairy, Tomandl points out. While that operation might not cash flow for a young farmer to farm it conventionally, it could be transitioned to grazing relatively easily, with a bare-bones parlor, fencing and lanes, so that next generation might take the cow herd up to 150 and cash flow the enterprise. He foresees both outside investors of various sorts and even farmers looking to reinvest in the future of agriculture purchasing even a conventional dairy farm, putting the “best of the best” on it to manage it as a grass-based dairy.
That Journey Dairy Grazier might secure a Farm Service Agency beginning farmer loan, purchase cattle and equipment, and lease that farm for five years or so, and then start buying in. No matter the “pathway,” the ultimate goal is that a farm be transferred to a young farmer, Tomandl stresses.
This producer thinks Wisconsin agriculture needs creative solutions. With the average age of a farmer in the mid-to-late 50s, in the next two decades, he says this country will see a “huge land transition.” Wisconsin agriculture has an opportunity to “sculpt what agriculture looks like” down the road. He thinks that a conventional 55-cow dairy can easily be made-over into 120 to 150-cow grazing operation that’s financially viable for a well-trained beginning farmer to operate and expand.
Tomandl believes grazing as a tool for transitioning farms is “smart business” for the dairy industry, and it makes good environmental sense, too. He encourages industry, farmers near retirement and/or those looking to creatively expand their operation, as well as, of course, people looking at making dairy farming their career to visit DGA’s website or email email@example.com or call Tomandl at 715-560-0389.